I have just read a very sobering and ‘human’ account of a Jewish girl who chose to stay in Berlin during the height of Nazism in Germany and the duration of World War Two. Marie Jalowicz Simon recounted to her son in the late 90s almost a hundred cassette tapes of her accounts of survival, and these were later transcribed, translated, and published as Marie’s memoir under the title Gone to Ground.
I say that it’s a ‘human’ account because Marie doesn’t pull any punches in describing her behavior. A cursory glimpse of the subject matter almost lures you into a reader’s bias of lionizing, even eulogizing, Marie’s life before you break the pages. This isn’t to undermine Marie’s struggle, in fact the story serves as a kind of wake-up call for what survival is really like. Even though she escaped the Gestapo and came into contact with many individuals that had bought into Nazism, Marie met many kind-hearted Germans that helped her to not only to avoid detection, but literally continue to live during difficult times. Marie exhibited a daring roguishness, such as testing how far Nazism had leeched into the population by asking policemen the best travel routes around the city. Jews were forbidden to travel on certain routes, and so if the police cared to uphold the Nazist beliefs, they would have expressed this to Marie, and perhaps even acted aggressively. However, the police saw a young girl that needed to get home, and so just told her to travel on the forbidden routes, regardless. Through this cunningness, Marie became an expert on testing the beliefs and convictions of those in Berlin during this time.
There are two parts to this memoir that have really stuck with me.
The first is that Marie refused to tar all people with the same brush. In the afterword, written by her son, Hermann Simon, he quotes part of a letter that his mother wrote to a friend explaining why she had chosen to remain in Berlin during this dangerous time.
I’d like to defuse the usual argument that pride doesn’t allow us to live in the land of the gas chambers. Do you think that the mob anywhere else in the world, if their worst instincts had been cleverly aroused, would have behaved any worse than the mob in Germany? Germans have murdered millions of Jews. But many Germans, risking their lives, made great sacrifices to help me.
Marie loved Berlin. She loved the Germany of Goethe, not the Germany of Hitler, and she never saw the rise of Nazism and the mass execution of Jews as a problem intrinsic to Germany. This was a major question that was asked after World War Two, and one of the major psychological experiments that explored the phenomenon of following orders, was carried out by the psychologist, Milgram. The experiment, although harrowing, seems to show under certain conditions, humans are likely to continue hurting others to appease the orders of an authority figure. This transcends all cultures.
The political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, also wrote about this phenomenon. In her seminal book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a man responsible for making sure the trains ran on time to send Jews to the concentration camps. Arendt seems to think that the trial, the new nation of Israel’s first major trial, was something of a show trial, and Eichmann was being treated as though he was on the same footing as Hitler or Himmler. The accountability of Eichmann can be debated, but this case does raise a number of questions, notably, where is the evil and how do you rank it? The banality of evil is an interesting discussion.
The second point that really stuck with me after reading these memoirs, is Marie’s attitude to being raped by a Soviet soldier. The Soviets liberated Berlin in 1945, and it has been widely documented that the Soviets raped many women during this ‘liberation’. Marie doesn’t devote much time to discussing it, other than to say, “I slept in the attic, where I was visited that night by a sturdy, friendly character called Ivan Dedoberez. I didn’t mind it too much.” She goes on to say that afterwards he wrote a note in pencil and left it on her door stating that she was his fiancee. This meant all other Soviet soldiers left her alone.
It is very hard to fathom and reconcile this attitude. Clearly, Marie had had to survive, often under excruciatingly dire circumstances, for many years, and so it’s almost like she had convinced herself that it was just another awful thing to endure as she continues to be a survivor. This is a point that Jane Garvey, a BBC Radio 4 presenter for Women’s Hour, discusses with Marie’s son, Hermann. Hermann seems to have the view that this was just one more thing she had to go through to survive, almost to say given everything else, what was one rape? Clearly, one rape is too much rape, and at this point in her story the turmoil of what Marie had been enduring for years just blows the mind.